Politics exercised, everywhere, and anywhere, is an interaction of a sort with power and the potentiality of that power’s imposition. In the United States’ political culture, power that is exercised can take the shape of law, of public policy, or institutional practices, public opinion, movements, and art – among a range other formations. It is less a question of how that power will be wielded, than it is by whom we can expect that power to be wielded. After all, which is a more effective method of deterrence: a legal ban on cannabis or a screening for cannabis as a prerequisite to employment?
But regardless of the how, or even by the whom, what we do know, and what we can expect, is for power to be placed into practice, that is, for politics to be exercised. For those upon whom that power is imposed, we are often tasked with a challenge – one that can consume the concerns of one’s art, studies, and even ways of interacting with the world. Those who find themselves on the receiving end of imposed power must determine how that power, those politics, will impact their freedoms, opportunities, and prospects for survival.
Who wins, and who loses? These are the questions that power intentionally obscures, but to answer them, we must do what the poststructuralist wing of the social sciences and humanities suggests we do: construct reality through the use of our language. We must define ourselves. Indeed, we must determine the ways we identify, but also, we must discover the ways in which power identifies us.
Did any thinker understand the necessity of this enterprise with the acuity in which Audre Lorde displayed over her literary career? It is doubtful. Bellied within the chasms of civil rights activism, second-wave feminism, anti-war politics, and gay liberation, Audre raucously discovered that identity was not only a source of pride, but it functioned dually as a site of power. For Lorde, identity was a pragmatic function of language used to describe the way in which oppressive power disrupted our lives. Identity, for Lorde, was also the pragmatic process of action by which we harnessed that power for ourselves.
Lorde was in a continuum with power and a continuum with self. She was in a continuum with identity. Her power and her politics were heightened, not diminished, when she strung together the fragments of her identity into a completed picture, her insisted title of “Black lesbian-feminist mother warrior poet.” Audre discovered agencies that could be derived from learning how to outmaneuver the racist heterosexist patriarchal rationalized use of power. Her gift to the rest of the world was demonstrating through the discovery and reclamation of identity, how we could manifest similar powers of our own.
But Lorde, a Black lesbian-feminist mother warrior poet, and those of us guilty of succumbing to these kinds of identity politics, are no different from the usually white, often male, left-wing casuists who castigate anything that smacks of what they call ‘identity politics.’ They claim that politics on the basis of identity: (1) fails to offer structural analysis (usually of capitalism) (2) and weakens the morale and efficacy of radical movements by calling for fragmented reforms while diverting attention and organizing capacity away from systemic oppression (generally the kinds aimed at the “working-class”). But whether classed, raced, or gendered, our politics, including those we share, and those we do not, are not formed any differently from the other. So how can there be a “pure” politics and an ‘identity’ politics, when all politics are based on the same assessment of who wins and who loses? What is the basis for this dichotomy when the way in which we fit into these categories of who is the process by which we form our identities? And are the ways in which we fight for, and fight against, not our politics?
What does the left mean when it holds up Occupy as a kind of “pure” politics while #MeToo is relegated to the status of “identity” politics? What tactical and strategic advantages are derived when we accept class as the basis for which we are all truly oppressed?
The answer, in short, is none. Lorde noted that “as we identify, we begin the journey to use [our] power.” We must then remember that no one is inherently powerless, but we are accustomed to encountering are people who are unskilled with or unaware of the power that they have.
Because power is never “quiescent,” or “neutral,” any power unidentified is power that is potentially dangerous. So, this process of discovering how power is used against us is where we we learn our identities, and, simultaneously, it is how we learn to identify power. What power do we identify as belonging to usually white, and often male figures, calling themselves communist, socialist, anarchist, progressive, and so on – those who elect themselves to determine whose identity politics are pure and whose is not? Is socioeconomic class, or one’s legal relation to the means of production, not an identity? And, if so, does this not render its interests an identity politic?
Is this the same power that labels Audre Lorde’s work for example “black feminist literature,” while upholding the works of Shakespeare, of Twain, and of Coleridge as standard literature? Is this dynamic also at play when the class politics of cisgender able-bodied heterosexual white anglo-saxon males are considered objective politics, while the rest of us are told that our gendered, raced, disabled, sexualized interests are rooted in our identities?
If each of our politics originate in that fundamental question of who wins and who loses — class politics, it follows, must be born then when we identify whose interest is reflected in maintaining exploitative property relations. But, who stands to gain when we must consume the films and literature of groups that oppress us; or who stands to gain when we fear assassination when encountering the police? Well, surely, we do not benefit. Perhaps those who pejoratively view our needs as simple “identity politics” do?
This might very well be the case. Because when we are asked to give up our “identity politics,” we are being asked to identify in another way, to accept a different set of assumptions about our own interests, to a prioritize a certain range of our experiences. What we are never truly being asked to do however, is cease identifying.